Blood, Sweat and Beer

When someone mentions family, what comes to mind?  Do you immediately think of mom, dad,  siblings, and the cat?  If you did, you are not alone. Well, the cat thing might make you a bit strange, but many of us do consider pets a part of the family.  On the other hand, some folks, this writer included, might think, “Which family.”

Yes, some people have more than one family.  One is the family of origin mentioned above, and related to that is the extended family.  You know, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and dad’s old buddy who’s been hanging around since they were in diapers together. Of course, for some of us, again including OneOldCop, there are variations on the theme.  Something such as the first family, the blended family that followed, and then those non-traditional families. This piece was inspired by a visit I made to one of my non-traditional families.  My rugby family.

It is unusual for someone born in the Midwestern United States and raised in the Southwest to have a rugby family.  I happen to be one of those lucky few, and one Saturday a few years ago, I dropped in on that family.  My old club was hosting a tournament, which gave me an excuse to go hang out with some old friends and watch a bit of rugby.

As luck would have it, one of the young guys playing for a visiting team was the son of a former opponent. The kid realized I was about his dad’s age and asked if I remembered him, which I did.  We chatted a bit before going our separate ways. Meeting him, remembering his dad, and seeing some guys I had not seen in years started me on a stroll down memory lane.

Rugby found me in 1974.  That may seem like the dark ages to some, but it was not that long ago for me.  I say rugby found me because that is what happened.  Like most people in Texas, rugby was a foreign word to me.  Then a friend asked me if I’d like to join the North Texas State University Rugby Club.[i]

I had the same reaction many in the U. S. would have.  I said, “What the heck is rugby?” He responded it was a cross between football and soccer.  He might also have mentioned something about free beer after the matches, but my memory is not what it once was.  I am not sure if that is due to all the shots to the head I took or that beer I think my friend mentioned.

To say I found a home would be an understatement. For the next 21 years, rugby was a big part of my life.  From August until May each year, I trained, traveled, laughed, played, and drank a beer or two with my teammates. We bled together, sweated together, and as I said, hoisted a pint together for all of those years.  Some of the faces changed each year, but the camaraderie didn’t.  Win, lose, or draw, we had a great time.

Ruggers like to say rugby is a ruffian’s sport played by gentlemen.  We usually say that when contrasting ourselves with soccer, which is known as a gentleman’s sport played by ruffians.  I cannot vouch for the disparaging remarks about soccer. I can attest to the validity of the claim about rugby, especially if you have a slightly loose definition of a gentleman.

Rugby seems to be unique in the amateur sports world.  Many sports build a team spirit or a sense of commonality among the participants.  Rugby, on the other hand, seems to build a relationship that is more family than team spirit.  For example, a rugby player from anywhere can walk into a rugby clubhouse or step onto the practice pitch and feel almost immediately at home.

Players from some countries rely on the rugby sense of belonging and acceptance to travel the world.  They visit an area with rugby and find a temporary home.  They join a team, they make new friends who will give them a place to stay and, if needed, even find temporary jobs.

The sociologist in me wonders why this is the case.  Why does a rugby club feel more like a family than a club or team?  Why can an American rugby player travel to Wales and be accepted as a long-lost relative?  Why can a New Zealander go to Denton, Texas, and fit in like he was raised there?

Part of the phenomenon is the culture.  Rugby seems to have started as a club that happened to play a sport.  While playing rugby in England and Wales one year, the Denton RFC visited clubs founded in the mid-19th century.  They were rugby clubs first, and rugby teams second, at least that is the way it seemed to this writer.

The front row, Austin 1992.

The other part of the equation is the game itself.  Rugby is, as the saying implies, a rough sport.  In some ways, it is possibly the roughest sport one can play.  Two teams of fifteen players meet on the pitch (field to non-ruggers) and do battle for eighty minutes.[ii]

Unlike American football, rugby is not a game where players move in and out after every play or series. Many players are on the field for the entire match. Substitutions are possible but they were, in those days at least, limited in number.[iii]

Rugby forwards, the equivalent of the offensive and defensive line in football are in every play and spend much of the match in a scrum.  A scrum involves direct, shoulder to shoulder contact with the opposing team’s forwards.  It is loosely similar to the offensive and defensive lines in football with a crucial difference. There is no undisputed possession of the ball.

Envision your favorite football team playing their arch-rival. Play is halted due to a tackle, first down, or some other incident.  The offensive and defensive lines then face off, but the center does not hike the ball. Instead, the quarterback drops the ball in between the two lines, and the lines wrestle for possession. That’s a scrum, roughly speaking.

No undisputed possession in rugby. Win the maul, win the ball.

Rugby backs are not locked in close-quarter combat for as much of the game. Like backs in football, they are waiting for the opportunity to carry the ball or tackle an opponent. Still, there are many instances in every match when a 150-pound back will find himself sandwiched in the middle of a ruck being pushed, pummeled, and walked on by 200-pound forwards.

It should be clear where the blood and sweat in the title originate.  Eighty minutes of rugby guarantee a lot of sweat and more than a little blood at times.  As suggested earlier, it is a full-contact sport, without helmets or pads. It is also intensely competitive.  One does not play rugby to lose, and a game that involves this much energy, effort, and pain can lead to hard feelings and lost tempers.  Fights, cheap shots, and other forms of aggression are not unknown in rugby.

Another grand thing about rugby is that the hard feelings are usually left on the field. If they do leave the pitch, they do not last long.  The traditions of amateur rugby required the home team to host a party for the visiting team after the match.  Whether that was genius, serendipity or just a way to sell beer is unknown, at least to this writer.  However, the tradition lives on and makes rugby different from other sports, at least at the amateur level.

The opposing clubs are in the host team’s clubhouse or favorite pub within an hour of the final whistle.  They are hoisting a brew, congratulating each other on good plays, and regaling each other with tales of matches won and lost in the past.  They are remembering former teammates who moved on, retired or passed.

Old friendships are rekindled and new rivalries are born.  At the end of the evening, the teams part looking forward to the next time they square off on the pitch, and the next after-match party where they can swap lies and remember past glory.

[i] The NTSU club morphed into the Denton Rugby Football Club. A new university club was formed some years later and plays in a collegiate division as the University of North Texas Rugby Club.
[ii] Traditional fifteen man rugby. Sevens rugby was for many years a summer diversion only. Now it is the rugby many people know.
[iii] The rule on substitutions has changed since my playing days, but are still limited to some degree.

© – 2012 (updated 2022)

About S. Eric Jackson

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